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Las Vegas Bets on Diversifying : Emphasis Placed on Attracting Industrial, Home Development

July 14, 1985|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — A number of years ago, supersalesman Elmer Wheeler coined a phrase that was to become the keystone of his motivational seminars for a dozen years.

"Don't sell the steak!" Wheeler would boom from his podium. "Sell the sizzle!"

Psychologically sound advice, but for this oasis of neon and high rollers that has deified the bare female bosom, it has never translated well: "Don't sell the city, sell the glitz!"

And it has been, literally, only in recent months that Las Vegas' efforts to sell itself to corporate America as a sober, pro-business growth site--for which gaudy, bouncing Las Vegas Boulevard is only a local, although unique, curiosity--have begun attracting serious national attention.

"And high time," home builder Hal Ober sighs wearily.

"It's been rough trying to get anybody to look beyond The Strip when they think about Las Vegas as a desirable place to live."

The current president of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Assn. and also president of RA Homes which develops roughly 11,000 residential units a year in the Las Vegas/Henderson area (from detached homes to condominiums to apartment complexes), Ober's initial experience with the negative Las Vegas image was a sobering one when he relocated from Tucson in 1977.

With deep, home-builder roots in Southern Arizona, where new and expanding industries gravitated naturally because of the relaxed life style, pleasant climate, low real estate costs, and a vigorous, dedicated employment pool, Ober was ill-prepared for the "Yes, but . . . " reaction that was almost universal when Las Vegas' own, comparable, attributes were mentioned.

"The problem wasn't with the buyers," Ober recalls, "it was with out-of-state lenders. They all said the same thing: 'We don't want to lend money in Las Vegas . . . not in Sin City!' It was so serious that I went to the governor and persuaded him to set up a committee to address it. The state launched a public relations drive and it apparently worked--the lenders have done a 180-degree turnaround. Now, they've all decided that it's a great place to do business."

The "Sin City" reputation, local boosters admit, has not only colored the thinking of would-be-lenders, but has similarly inhibited would-be employers who somehow felt that the environment of the city created a "different," less reliable work force.

It is a concept that was pooh-poohed by such firms as Citicorp when the New York-based bank holding company chose Las Vegas as the site for what might be considered a sensitive operation--a credit-card processing center.

"About 90% of the 415 people we've hired to date are locals," according to Fred Winkler, Citicorp's legal counsel, "and it's been a very good experience. We didn't resort to psychological screening or anything like that--just our standard hiring practices. What a lot of people seem to forget is that Las Vegas has one of the highest, if not the highest base of high school graduates in the country. They've got good, basic skills, are highly trainable and well motivated. We know that a fair share of our people came out of the gaming industry, but we don't know how many." Winkler adds: "It isn't that important to us.'

Blocked by Disinterest

But compounding the problem for many years in Las Vegas was a local disinterest on the part of many local movers and shakers whenever the desirability of diversification was mentioned: Gaming and tourism had been good to Las Vegas. Why rock the boat?

"We're on the rebound, now," Jim Cashman, chairman of the Nevada Development Authority says, "but the general economic doldrums of 1982 and 1983--while it didn't stop our growth-- certainly flattened it out. And Atlantic City, of course, sure didn't help, either. For the first time, we were really hurting."

One side benefit of the slow-down: "It got a lot of people around here interested in diversification who hadn't cared, one way or another, before. We're not ashamed of what Las Vegas is . . . we're proud of it because that's what made it great. It's just that there's another side to it which was overlooked for a long time."

The Nevada Development Authority which Cashman, a heavy-equipment dealer, heads goes back almost 30 years. It was primarily a volunteer operation serving as an advisory group when corporate inquiries were received. Tourism and gaming, then and now, fall under the aggressive Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

NDA Turns Aggressive

"About eight or nine years ago, though," according to Fred Couzens, an NDA associate, "the structure was changed and we became a full-time, nonprofit, organization financed through private companies, some communities and the state Commission on Economic Development." And, even though the economic downturn that was to underline the need for diversification was still a few years away, the NDA's role shifted from a passive information bureau to that of an active vendor of the state's desirability as an industrial/commercial site.

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